Coronavirus is reshaping the airport experience of the future, part 2

In part one of this article, we looked at the background to the coronavirus outbreak in aviation and started exploring how some of the processes might change when the sector begins to reopen.

Now, we ask how to start implementing the envisioned “airport of the future”?

Firstly, the key would be to leverage intelligent operational and passenger technologies, along with innovation in AI, bio-metrics and mobility.

These technologies are already in use in several locations albeit in a fragmented manner. With proper and continuous alignment with relevant entities, these solutions can be integrated to reach the required objective.

Below are some examples of existing technologies that can be integrated to create a smart and decentralized airport of the future:

  • Off-airport check-in: The United Arab Emirates has introduced an off-airport solution that checks in passengers and their bags from their homes or hotels, mall, or any other off- airport location. Our own off-airport solution currently enables remote check-in for any airline, handles excess baggage payments, and offers passengers ancillary sales. Other examples exist in USA, UK, and Japan while off-airport check-in is considered to be crucial in IATA’s New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT) initiative.
  • Bio-metric identification: Today, a few hundred airports all over the world are testing bio-metric identification, a technology that verifies a flier’s identity through fingerprints or facial features. This will allow passengers to speed through some aspects of their journey such as security or boarding. For example, Emirates airline and immigration authorities in Dubai started piloting a bio-metric passenger journey that uses facial recognition and pre-screening of passengers to provide a seamless path. Throughout this path, passengers are not required to show a passport or boarding pass from the check-in counter all the way to the aircraft. Bio-metrics will continue to develop throughout the next decade, to include the check-in process, security checkpoint and domestic boarding. In fact, IATA has developed the OneID initiative to standardize the use of bio-metrics at airports, keeping the passenger journey seamless and secure.
  • Tracking and analytics: Following COVID-19’s outbreak, many apps were developed to track people’s locations and provide a health check on individuals. These can be utilized at airports as well, by integrating with airlines’ check-in systems to pre- authorize passengers for travel, based on their location history. Additionally, thermal equipment to capture passenger temperature may see full-scale adoption as part of the future solution. Etihad Airways has announced trials on contactless, self-service technologies that can estimate a passenger’s vital health signs for health screenings at airport kiosks and bag drops.
  • AI and Digital Concierge: British Airways is piloting AI robots to interact with passengers and provide real-time information of their travel, freeing up employees to deal with time-sensitive issues. Passenger apps are also increasing and offering multiple services to passengers during their travel journey — effectively a digital concierge.

The emergence of a digital concierge helps facilitate a contact-less journey

Many airlines and airports are also partnering with regulatory authorities to make passengers’ journey across the airport more seamless.

Implementing these technologies is challenging for a variety of reasons (detailed in next section). Therefore, it is imperative to begin now by applying a phased approach based on an agile and iterative process while making use of existing technologies.

This move towards a comprehensive and fully integrated solution will make way for the airport of the future.

The figure below summarizes how the airport of the future could be rolled out:

Where is the hold-up?

While technology solutions are there, implementing change in aviation is often cumbersome, as it requires alignment and approval from a diverse and complex ecosystem of airlines, airports, ground handlers, regulators, police, and customs.

As such, initiatives such as IATA’s NEXTT will be key to bring stakeholders together to work on an aligned vision.

Some of the challenges that currently hinder the implementation of the airport of the future, or at least elements of it, are:

  • High comfort levels with legacy systems and processes: Many of the processes and systems at airports are outdated, yet are still live due to stakeholder difficulty in agreeing on new standards. For example, the Common Use passenger check-in platform standard, CUTE, is still the de-facto standard since the 1980’s.
  • Data integration issues: The IT landscape in aviation is quite fragmented and does not always rely on latest communications protocols. Airlines, airports, ground handlers, and government authorities all use different systems. This imposes significant data integration challenges especially when aspiring to implement a seamless passenger experience from checking-in to boarding a flight. For example, off-airport baggage services need to be standardized in terms of technologies and processes to enable full airline integration.
  • Data Privacy: To enable the airport of the future, increased access to passenger data is required: their travel history, existing whereabouts, duty-free purchases, medical information, etc. This imposes significant challenges that need to be addressed from a data privacy perspective. This is an obstacle already faced by organizations in Europe that are trying to address consent management issues for biometric check-in and verification, whilst complying with GDPR requirements.
  • Sharing the investment risk: The question of “who pays?” is commonplace when it comes to investing in new airport technologies. All parties have a vested interest in a new airport concept, however, risk sharing is an issue since stakeholders have different risk appetites that makes it difficult to agree on a co-investment plan.

The challenges outlined above are significant and have hindered many digitalization projects over the last decade.

As such, it is required for players to sit at the table and agree on a common vision to manage innovation in a constructive and feasible manner.

Additionally, startups face many barriers to entry to innovate in aviation (regulatory approvals, alignment with airlines, airports, etc).

Hence, a framework to reduce these barriers and to incentivize risk-embracing VCs to invest in aviation startups is necessary to acclerate innovation in the industry.

Which industries attract the most venture capital?

Final thoughts

In previous outbreaks, markets swiftly rebounded:

COVID-19 will change many aspects of our daily lives and its impact will be long lasting. Yet there is no doubt travel will resume and will even rebound to new heights. This has been the trend for all previous outbreaks.

Appropriate measures must be developed and put in place to ensure that aviation players are not forced into submission as the result of a novel virus or disease.

This is the time to start collaboratively materializing this vision. Most aviation and travel stakeholders have been impacted by the vulnerabilities of the travel process and they need to address them immediately.

In summary, a pandemic is bound to happen again but the survival of the airline industry cannot be at stake each time.

It is time to use technologies that will not only help in reducing disruption in travel, but will also curb the spread of diseases and protect the global economy.

Now is the time to start building the airports of the future.

About the author…

Omar Abou Faraj is CEO of Dubz, a division of Dnata. Samer Sobh (chief operating officer), Mustafa Maghraby (chief commercial officer) and Amine Oubrahim (growth specialist) also contributed to the article.

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